Have injuries made Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer undraftable?
"The healthy man does not torture others -- generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers." -- Carl Jung
Being a Minnesota Twins fan in 2011 was a bit like being tortured, as the team struggled out of the gate, winning just 17 of its first 53 games. Although the Twins played somewhat better in the middle of the season, teasing supporters into thinking they had a shot at the playoffs, they closed out the year on a pitiful 13-41 run, narrowly escaping a 100-loss season.
This was not what was expected from a team that had made the playoffs in each of the two prior campaigns. Unfortunately, injuries took their toll on a team that was forced to use 142 defensive lineups over the course of the season. By way of comparison, the 97-win New York Yankees used 78 defensive lineups. It's very hard to win without your best players.
While every team is going to have injuries, not all bumps and bruises are created equal. Just a week into the season, Tsuyoshi Nishioka suffered a broken left fibula when Nick Swisher slid hard into second base in an effort to break up a double play. But bones heal and, eventually, the infielder returned to action.
Concussions, however, are different animals, and 2006 American League MVP Justin Morneau has been a shell of his former self since getting hit in the head by John McDonald's knee during an otherwise routine slide into second base on July 7, 2010. He walked off the field looking a little groggy and didn't suit up again for the rest of the season.
However, as he was hitting .345 at the time of the incident, people were expecting that once the 2011 season started, he would return to form. He was ranked No. 11 among first basemen in our preseason summit, with the assumption that the worst was behind him. Boy, were we wrong.
Morneau was plagued with a return of concussion-like symptoms to go along with myriad other injuries that saw him needing surgeries on his neck, wrist, foot and knee. As a result, he managed to make it through only June 9 before shutting things down. After a two-week return in August, a return of those symptoms ended his season for good with a sad .227 batting average and only four home runs in 68 games.
Morneau says he hasn't had any issues since January, but he also told reporters that "I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point where you can only torture yourself for so long. It's something I love to do, but you keep preparing, and you keep being left out. That's something that nobody wants to go through."
That's not exactly an optimistic stance, and while the mere fact that he has shown up to try to give it one more try is promising, it sounds as if he's already resigned himself to the possibility that he's played his last game, and that is reason enough to steer clear of him in all fantasy drafts.
Yes, he's further clarified those comments as being "honest" and in response to a direct question. He says he is optimistic overall. But you have to believe some doubts are resting just below the surface, not only in terms of the chances of a relapse, but also in Morneau's performance if he is in fact "cured." After all, there's no guarantee that he'll return to his All-Star form even if he is healthy enough to make the Twins' lineup out of spring training.
Morneau is not the only Twins player who is trying to recover from a concussion. Denard Span also missed much of last season after a June 3 collision at home plate. The difference with Span is that he has yet to prove himself to be a legitimate fantasy asset when healthy, so while we are certainly rooting for his return to full health, he wasn't likely to be on our draft list anyway.
With Morneau, if we were convinced that he might be able to give us a .300 batting average with 20 home runs over even 450 at-bats, we'd be willing to roll the dice on him with a late-round flier. But in his limited action last season he failed to hit left-handed pitching (.144) and managed only a .252 batting average on balls in the strike zone (compared to his .331 in 2009).
Could that be a result of his health issues? Sure. But it also could be eroding skills, and while the soon-to-be 31-year-old is not exactly over the hill, the defeatist attitude he has been projecting so far this spring does not bode well for an immediate turnaround.
A more positive outlook surrounds catcher Joe Mauer, who also is attempting to return after a season both he and his fantasy owners would rather forget ever happened. Mauer, who won the AL MVP in 2009 and finished eighth in the 2010 vote, played in only 82 games last season due to a variety of mysterious ailments.
Mauer missed 57 games from April to June because of "bilateral leg weakness." However, once Mauer returned to action, he hit .356 for the month of July before tailing off bit, perhaps due to fatigue. By the time he was diagnosed with pneumonia in mid-September, his batting average had fallen to a more pedestrian .287 for the season.
Still, Mauer's whole season was likely derailed as a result of his late start to spring training after offseason knee surgery. This season, Mauer isn't going to make the same mistake. He arrived in Fort Myers in far better shape than he did at the same time last season. On the Twins' website, Mauer said "I knew it was going to be a tough year. I wasn't anywhere near close to where I am physically right now."
We're willing to give Mauer the benefit of the doubt. Pneumonia goes away. The specter of concussions that has haunted Minnesota since the days of Corey Koskie is not currently knocking on his door. And while it's true that the power surge that Mauer saw in 2009 was likely a fluke, even hitting just 10 homers to go along with a .300 batting average could well result in him ending up in the conversation as one of the top five fantasy catchers for 2012 -- and that's very much in the realm of possibility.
In summary, these two Twins could not look any different in terms of their 2012 outlook. Don't torture yourself fretting over the decision on whether or not to draft this pair. With Mauer, there's every reason to expect a return to his prior form, so you should feel confident in selecting him once catchers start coming off the board. However, Morneau's future seems a lot more unclear. You can certainly be in his corner and be rooting for a full recovery, but there's no need to do so while having him in your fantasy lineup.